Last spring, a well-connected fellow told me a story about President Obama and his team. The story was this: The President-elect and members of his team met with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair prior to the inauguration. Mr. Blair, the story goes, advised them not to put forward a modest agenda, but to seek passage for as much as they dared propose. Mr. Blair argued that a new President or Prime Minister basically has one year to advance an agenda and then spends the remainder of his or her time in perpetual reaction mode. Mr. Blair regretted that he had not used his first year in office to put forward a much more ambitious agenda. "Don't make the same mistake," he supposedly said to Team Obama.
I don't know if this story is true, but I suspect it is. It is inarguably true that Team Obama put forward an ambitious agenda in 2009. It is also inarguably true that that agenda is now dead. The election of Scott Brown (R-MA) was the final nail in the coffin. The question now is: what next?
Amongst Democratic corporate insiders in Washington, New York, Los Angeles and Boston, there is talk of "the pivot;" a repositioning of the President as "more centrist." Amongst more activist Democrats, there is also talk of "the pivot;" a repositioning of the President as more "populist," more plugged into the electorate's roiling rage. Amongst Administration insiders, whose ranks have now swollen with veterans from the 2008 presidential campaign, there is the promise of new resolve and regained initiative. The "pivot point," all agree, will be Wednesday night, when the President delivers his State of the Union address. The post-speech commentary will inevitably focus on: (1) did the President regain the initiative? and (2) how successful will his pivot be?
The answer, I think, is that whatever pivot is made will be irrelevant. The fact is President Obama doesn't have the luxury of proposing an agenda. Agendas (or at least, agendas as we have come to think of them) are for people who have money. The United States is broke. And the debt gets worse by the day.
Therefore, President Obama's job is to get us out of debt (or start us down the path toward that end). This job would be difficult in the best of times. President Obama has to do it in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930s. He has to do it in the midst of two wars in regions perpetually hostile to foreign influence. And he has to do it in the midst of a global recession so severe that it now threatens what erudite commentators call the "social cohesion" of our allies and trading partners around the world.
That being the case, and I think it is inarguably the case, President Obama will never be successful until he accepts the assignment that history has given him. No one (anywhere) believes for one moment that he can add 30-35 million people to the health insurance rolls and not increase (sharply) the cost of health insurance. President Obama has been peddling this fable for months now and it has only served to make him look either (a) naive, or (b) utterly cynical. No one believes that "cap and trade" legislation is anything like an urgent priority at this time. No one believes that securing the Olympics for Chicago in 2016 is an urgent use of the President's time. No one believes that President Obama deserved or should have accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. The reason that Obama has seen his approval rating fall sharply is that people think he's not doing his job.
His job is to get the country on a path to fiscal sustainability and to defeat (as much as humanly possible) those who seek to put nuclear weapons in our cities and detonate them in time for the evening news. His job, more accurately, is to cut costs, delay benefits, right-size government programs, rethink military and diplomatic strategies, re-focus our war efforts, all while rebuilding (or expanding) intellectual and physical infrastructure for the years ahead. And he must do all this while devising new strategies for jump-starting wealth creation. It's more than enough agenda for anyone, even someone with President Obama's admirable self-confidence and perhaps grandiose self-esteem.
"Stop spending money you don't have" was the real message of the Massachusetts Senate election that vaulted Senator-elect Brown from the back benches of one of the most useless political institutions in America (the Massachusetts State Senate) onto the front page of The New York Times. "Do your job," was the other, direct message to President Obama. It's a hard job, everyone agrees. But he campaigned for it. He wanted it, or at least he said he did. Either he steps up and starts to do his job or he's a one-term wonder; an interesting, but ultimately unimportant toll booth attendant on the road to the insolvency of the United States of America.
Does the country go bankrupt or does it rejuvenate? Those are the stakes of the game now. The electorate would like their President to get in the game.
Monday, January 25, 2010
Posted by John at 1/25/2010 04:31:00 PM